Be my guest: The polar extremes of SOTU invites

Posted at 10:13 AM, Jan 13, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-13 11:08:23-05

CINCINNATI -- President Barack Obama’s seventh and final State of the Union address on Tuesday kind of doubled as a date night for U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown.

The Ohio Democrat attended with Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Connie Schultz, who happens to be his wife and the winner of journalism’s most prestigious award in 2005, when she was writing for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

But it was no night on the town for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has been one of the president’s most consistent and blistering critics.

The Kentucky Republican’s guest was fourth-generation coal miner Howard Abshire of Pike County, who lost his job at Fortress Resources, McCoy Elkhorn Division, according to McConnell’s office in the nation’s capital.

“Howard, who was a proud Kentucky coal miner, represents the hard-working lifestyle of many people in eastern Kentucky," the senator said in a press release a day before the address. "He has spent most of his life working in underground mines to help power our nation; however, the president’s war on coal has devastated coal country and unfortunately contributed to the loss of thousands of jobs in Kentucky, one of which was Howard’s.”

Brown’s decision to attend with his wife and McConnell’s decision to hammer home a political point with his invitation represent the polar extremes of how members of Congress use their invitations to an address that will be scrutinized by historians in the future.

Each member of Congress can invite one guest to the event. Ever since the Reagan administration, presidents also have welcomed special guests to the address. This speech was no exception.

One of Obama’s invitees was Over-the-Rhine resident Jim Obergefell, who appeared to be sitting near first lady Michelle Obama. In the past, Obama and other presidents have recognized people in the audience for their accomplishments.

But that didn’t happen, as the president opted not to single out any members of the audience in a relatively brief one-hour speech.

Earlier in the year, Obergefell had been the lead plaintiff in the U.S. Supreme Court case that overturned Ohio’s ban on same-sex marriage. Obama made a clear reference to the court decision in the opening minutes of his remarks when he listed some of his administration’s accomplishments and said: “That’s how we secured the freedom in every state to marry the person we love.”

The broad sweep of people who were invited by members of Congress from Greater Cincinnati this year illustrates that there is no clear-cut formula that will predict who gets an invitation in the future, according to Gene Beaupre, assistant director of the Philosophy, Politics and the Public honors program at Xavier University.

Sometimes a member of Congress will try to invite someone – a military veteran, for example – who might be linked closely to an issue that will be mentioned prominently in the address, Beaupre said.

“The invitation also can be an incentive to a potential supporter or an opportunity to show the influence that you (the potential supporter) might have” in Washington, Beaupre said. “It can also be a reward to the people who got you there or are sympathetic (to your positions).”

David Niven, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati, agreed that tickets oftentimes go to a “local dignitary” in the home state or district or someone who has played an important role in a major piece of legislation.

But more and more, those invitations are being used to “try to score a political point by inviting someone who has a compelling narrative,” said Niven, whose background includes work as a speech writer for Democrat Ted Strickland, the former Ohio governor and a six-term member of Congress who is running against U.S. Senator Rob Portman, a Republican from Terrace Park.

The composition of the TV audience for the address has changed drastically for the last three presidents, Niven said. Thirty or more years ago, viewership was split equally between the two major parties, the professor said.

But in recent years, research shows that members of the president’s party are far more inclined to watch the address than members of the party that isn’t occupying the White House, Niven said. That leads to an inability to have “an open exchange of ideas,” he said.

Like McConnell, Beaupre said House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, made a powerful political statement by inviting two nuns who are leaders of the Little Sisters of the Poor, which has sued the federal government over the healthcare law that has come to be known as Obamacare.

“This is kind of like poking a stick in his eye,” Beaupre said.

The TV cameras focused on the nuns for a couple seconds.

Beaupre described the politicization of the invitation process “a drama that’s taking place as kind of a second act to the president’s address and how many people sit down and stand up during the speech.”

McConnell, re-elected easily in 2014, is making his point about Obama’s so-called “War On Coal” despite the fact that he doesn’t face a challenge at the polls anytime soon.

Since he's seeking re-election, Portman didn’t have the luxury of being apolitical on Tuesday. He invited Herman Potter, president of United Steelworkers Local 689, and a leader of a union that’s never been identified as a traditional GOP stronghold.

"Herman is a friend and a steadfast partner in the fight to accelerate cleanup of the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant and save jobs at the American Centrifuge Plant in Piketon, Ohio," Portman said in a press release. "I'm pleased that he is able to join me for the State of the Union and look forward to continuing to work closely together for the critically important work being done in Piketon."

Like Portman, U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, who represents the First District of Cincinnati, is expected to seek re-election this year, a decision that may have played a role in his decision to invite Cincinnati radio talk show host Lincoln Ware to attend the address.

Chabot wanted to provide Ware with some insight about the political process in Washington and a first-hand vantage point for the president’s address, according to Brian Griffith, a member of Chabot’s staff in Cincinnati.

Ware, an African-American, hosts one of the city’s longest-running radio talk shows on WDBZ-AM (1230) “The Buzz of Cincinnati” from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekdays. The show often focuses on issues that affect African-Americans, who make up about 45 percent of the city’s population of about 300,000, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Chabot’s Republican counterpart in the Second District of Ohio, U.S. Rep. Brad Wenstrup, who also lives in Cincinnati, offered an invitation to Capt. Katherine Conrad, a constituent from Cincinnati and combat pilot with the Air National Guard who recently returned from a Middle East deployment, according to Greg Brooks, Wenstrup’s communications director.

“Welcoming Captain Conrad is a small thank you to her and all our troops that continue to serve in harm’s way,” Wenstrup said in an e-mail.

U.S. Rep. Thomas Massie, whose Fourth Congressional District includes all of Northern Kentucky, said staff members hold a drawing to determine who attends the address. Massie said the ticket is a way to thank staffers for their service to constituents.

Jonathan Tkachuk, staff assistant in the Washington office, was scheduled to attend, according to Lorenz Isidro, who is on Massie’s staff.